”Who is looking at the ecology of dancehall?” That was the question my first friend from the African Continent Bibi Bakare Weate asked which set me squarely on the dancehall track. It catapulted me into a series of personal memories, dancehall ruminations and interpretations. That question led me to consider performance language, the stage and acts as essential ingredients for living. Afterall, the world’s a stage, and the dancehall world no less so. The stages are various: streets, shacks, shrubs, lawns, halls, abandoned or unoccupied lots, school rooms, and clubs.
On such platforms consenting adults seek entertainment, economic, and social fulfilment. Most of all, on these platforms, many enact their beings, live other sides of themselves and gain status. The dancehall world, its stage, habitus, citizenry and ecology are all at the heart of the research I published in DanceHall: From Slave ship to Ghetto.
Last week I decided to begin my class (Identity and Conduct in Jamaican Dancehall, UWI) with my ruminations on the ‘ecological question’ and how it led me to look at embodied geographies which tell us a lot about the socio-cultural context that makes Jamaica Jamaica! Do you really know what dance moves and names reveal about dancehall and Jamaican social life? Have you ever considered the cross-cultural implications of dance? Check out this video from dancers among the African community in South America. Does it look like anything from the Jamaican dance repertoire?
The dance is a distinguishing feature of the dancehall space. In dancehall dancers and other patrons take on the toil of ridding their mind of daily troubles, becoming enslaved devotees, not (solely) in a capitalist sense that renders them as pawns, but in a somatic and kinaesthetic sense. As if they were ‘slaves to the rhythm’ that beat around them and inside them amidst the social ills of everyday Jamaica, the exerting body on the contemporary dance floors of Jamaica literally and symbolically replaces those on the plantations that preceded them. In this sense slavery and freedom are inextricably linked into mechanisms of law, identity and liberties. Here is the body that, through contestation, exploitation, discrimination and oppression, has preserved itself through performance to tell the tales of history, while dance venues become de-localised for just a moment when they transcend time and produce the power to transform lives.
The dancehall platform has seen many dance moves. Such dance moves tell stories about gender, history, and identity. Let’s look at one of the most popular female dance steps. The butterfly was the most popular dance in 1992. It depicted the form of a butterfly with the movement of the dancer’s outspread legs and arms. The ‘butterfly’ is danced with bent knees, a characteristic feature of African and diasporic movement patterns, with the feet flat to support the dynamic displacement of the hips, shoulder girdle, and legs. The knees, which open and close fluidly on a horizontal axis, mimic the flapping of the butterfly’s wings in flight. While the butterfly has clear connections with the Charleston, its North Atlantic cousin which has roots in an Ashanti ancestor dance, with its quick spreading and crossing of hands on the knees, there are differences. For example, the forward and backward thrust of the hip which supports the opening and closing of the legs allows for increased degrees of variation on the movement style.
Well, as with the musical rhythms — punawny, taxi, sleng ting, rampage, old dawg, diwali, fiesta, wicked, nine night, tai chi, military, red bull and guinness, and anger management — dance moves have names which tell stories. These include stories of cross-fertilization, identification with characters, vibes, phenomena, globalization, contemporary and historical Jamaican and African traditional forms, body parts, as well as the valorization of local culture. For example, the jerry springer and erkle moves present interesting names for an analysis of dancehall within the text of two television characters originating within the social milieu or melee displayed in America’s visualscape. Jerry Springer is a talk show named after its host. The show is known for high levels of controversy and public display of interpersonal feuding. The identification with Jerry Springer – one of the most explosive talk shows in which guests openly displayed private controversies, contests and physical fights – within the bodily movement repertoire of the Jamaican space, says something about the identities within both spaces and the kinds of practices that they produce. The erkle, on the other hand, is named after a nerd from the series Family Matters.
Some of the messages to be read from the dance moves include tangible socio-cultural and anatomical scripts. For example, some dances comment on social ills. These include the curfew and drive by.
The movement in ‘curfew’ presents policemen carrying guns while searching for criminal elements in innercity communities that come under attack from gang warfare and/or warring political factions. With the characteristic bent knees, sometimes to very low grand plié levels, the dancer walks in a forward motion with hands mimicking the shape of a rifle while looking forward and backwards. The get flat dance popularized by the Bloodfire Posse band through a song of the same name is a forerunner of the curfew.
The ‘drive by’ represents two things. First it comes into common Jamaican usage because of the ‘importation’ of drive-by shootings from North America, as a sign of more complex criminal activity in Jamaica. Added to this, however, is the representation of the actions involved in driving a car. The dance moves through a sequence of actions such as steering, gearing down, turning left, indicating, braking, and parking. The influx of reconditioned cars in the late 1990s, gave the middle and working classes in Jamaica increased access to motor vehicles and one could argue that the ‘drive by’ represents the ‘coming of age’ of car culture in Jamaica.
Information technology introduced concepts such as the internet and ‘logging on’ which are reflected in the internet and log on dance names. Alongside such imports as cars, and technological advancements as it were, there are others such the log on dance whose movement and description in song are not stictly related to the technology. The lyrics by Elephant Man instruct the dancer to “log on an’ step pon chi chi man, dance we a dance an’ a burn out a freakie man”, with a lift of the leg followed by a twist to the side before stepping down. In the 1970’s, the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett popularised the term chi chi bus which refered to the popular mode of transportation in the island. In the 1990s the term was used to refer to the homosexual male whose sexual orientation was and still is strongly denounced within dancehall.
(This piece was abstracted from the book Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto, by Sonjah Stanley Niaah, University of Ottawa Press 2010, now available at Amazon.com).